As a parish priest, I see a need for Common Prayer revision, but I am strongly opposed to Book of Common Prayer revision. Lest you imagine I am preparing to found the 1979 BCP Society, let me explain.
Certainly, parts of the Book of Common Prayer need to be revised and refreshed. From marriage liturgies that no longer reflect our current usage to limited options for gender-neutral or expanded language for God, our prayer book occasionally makes it clear that our church is in a different place than we were in the 1970’s (for which we can mostly be grateful). Many of the proposals at the General Convention for BCP revisions deal with important issues that our liturgical life will need to address to move forward.
At the same time, I desperately want to see revision that allows us to expand our resources without requiring a brand new Book of Common Prayer. I say this practically. My church probably has about four hundred 1979 BCPs in our building. On an average week, less than twenty of them get opened, and they are almost never touched on Sunday morning. Everything the congregation needs for our public worship services is in a bulletin. We’ve found that visitors are more likely to return if they can use a bulletin instead of a BCP and a hymnal and a bulletin. As a quick glance of the pages shows, even when we did use a couple hundred BCPs every week, mostly we used the same pages over and over again.
I have found, surprisingly, that I don’t even use my own BCP very often. I use apps for the daily office. When I go to the hospital, I have found that my phone contains the BCP, the Bible, and any hymns I might want to sing or play. I would also note that most of the BCPs I own currently have the wrong lectionary in them, so I have to use the internet or another resource to find the Sunday readings.
What I hope does not happen is that over the next six years we create the 2024 Book of Common Prayer that requires my congregation either to spend thousands of dollars on physical books that will never be used (and that we will want to change three years after they are published), or to have only the “old” prayer book in our pews. Our current prayer books are very helpful to find a collect before a meeting or to go into the chapel and read compline with the youth group. I also am not hearing any great outcry to remove significant pieces of the prayer book. Is anyone really suggesting we eliminate Rite I, for example, or forbid a couple from using the current marriage rite? Instead of focusing on what is in our printed books, which is cutting edge technology from 1550, let’s make the needed changes in our liturgical life in preparation for whatever the right technology will be for 2050.
Instead of a new book, we need new resources and a canonically appropriate avenue to authorize them for the whole church. At this convention, I would like to see the first reading of a constitutional amendment that creates such a process. Instead of new print publications, we need the capacity to create the resources that the church needs on an ongoing basis. Such a process will also be the easiest way to continue to offer the church’s liturgical resources in an increasing variety of languages (Spanish and French are only the beginning of the translations we currently need, and if our evangelism efforts are successful we will need translations in ten years into languages we have not even started to consider.).
I hope also that as we develop new resources, they are free to download in easily accessible formats for the entire church to use. Our pension fund does not need profits from our liturgical resources to keep retired clergy from poverty, and using an authorized Eucharistic prayer should not require an extra hour of work on the part of the parish staff.
I know that there are many reasons to look at the revision of our Book of Common Prayer. Focusing on the needs of our church’s congregational liturgical and prayer life, however, leads me to strongly support common prayer revision without revising the book.
The Rev. Adam Trambley, a deputy from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, is co-author of “Acts to Action: The New Testament’s guide to Evangelism and Mission.”